Teeth Clenching & Its Potential Link to Headaches and Anxiety

teeth clenching link to headaches anxiety

Even when you are asleep, the human brain does not stop working. In fact, sleep provides a lot of insight to your health in the waking state. Blood pressure and heart rate will rise and fall throughout the night, which is an important process for cardiovascular health. Hormones are also released to aid the body’s recovery. Some people snore while others talk in their sleep. 

Unfortunately, some of the things that your body does during sleep can be harmful and even lead to serious long term health conditions, such as bruxism. Better known as teeth grinding or teeth clenching, bruxism leads to headaches and are often linked to anxiety.

Teeth clenching during sleep is a quirky habit that is pretty common. Chronic bruxism, on the other hand, can cause multiple problems, such as tension headaches and anxiety for some people. Since it occurs during sleep, it is considered as a sleep disorder. People with bruxism also tend to suffer from sleep apnea and breathing problems. 

Clenching also damages teeth which leads to sensitivity and tooth pain. Tired jaw muscles (caused by clenching and grinding) can cause the jaw to lock. Pain can also go all the way to the ears, neck, and face. 

Can Grinding and Clenching Teeth Cause Headaches?

Teeth clenching, headaches, and anxiety are absolutely related. According to Dr. Susan Walsh of Loyola University Health System’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience, people grind their teeth when under stress. The stress response also makes an individual clench their jaw. 

This can be attributed to the nerves that connect to your jaw muscles. When your brain’s fight or flight response is activated, those nerves are stimulated and perform the clenching action.

How teeth clenching, headaches and anxiety are all connected

If your body is under chronic stress, it is manifested in the body and especially during sleep. As mentioned above, clenching the jaw muscles is one of the ways stress is manifested during sleep. The muscles affected by bruxism are all connected to the same muscles that are triggered when you experience anxiety, which is why they are related to each other. 

It is easy to assume that anxiety problems could be the cause of the problem. Emotional stress has long been considered as one of the triggers for clenching and grinding teeth. However, experts say it is hard to pinpoint which comes first. 

To this day, doctors are trying to find answers as to why some people are more prone to clench their jaws and grind their teeth than others. 

Each time you clench your teeth during sleep, the brain gets disturbed from the deep sleep stage. You will automatically enter the light sleep stage. Your feelings of pain and anxiety could get worse since you are not getting enough sleep. And when you are anxious and stressed, you are highly likely to clench your teeth during day time (also known as daytime grinding), which makes the problem even worse. 

Treatments for Teeth Grinding Related Headaches

The good news about teeth clenching and the resulting headaches and anxiety is that it is highly treatable. The current treatment options are medication and/or therapy. 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy, for example, can help alleviate the symptoms caused by stress. It works by helping you manage how you respond to stress, which essentially includes not clenching your teeth and jaw.

Meditation and relaxation techniques can help manage stress and anxiety better. These will give you better control of your mind and body, improve self-esteem, and minimize the occurrence of bruxism. 

Here are some commonly used guidelines in treating teeth grinding in relation to headaches and anxiety.

headaches anxiety can cause teeth clenching

Improved Sleep Routine

You need to restrict alcohol, smoking, and caffeine at night. Limiting mental and physical activities before bedtime, and making the bedroom optimal for sleep (dark and cool space, TVs and electronic devices must be turned off) can help you relax and sleep faster. 

Custom Teeth Grinding Devices

A mouth guard is a simple device that is considered as the first line of defense for preventing tooth damage from grinding and minimizing noises at night. It also alleviates painful symptoms in the morning caused by strenuous teeth clenching. 

You can also use the mandibular advancement device (MAD) that works by temporarily moving the jaw and tongue a little bit forward. It is known to reduce sleep apnea and snoring by increasing the airway space and reducing throat restriction. 

Regular Exercise

There are plenty of benefits to exercising regularly that would help to alleviate stress and anxiety. 

 headache anxiety teeth clench

Behavior Therapy

You can try therapies that will teach you about habit reversal techniques that will try to break bad and stubborn habits such as teeth clenching. 

Medications

Doctors prescribe muscle relaxants to reduce the frequency of bruxism for a short period of time. However, caution must be exercised so as not to develop dependency on the medication and prevent internal organ damage from excessive use.

If you or anyone you know suffers from cluster headaches or migraines, and you feel that stress and anxiety are related to the condition, then it’s best to visit your doctor. You can also try any of the treatments suggested above to alleviate the symptoms.

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Dr. Manish Shah tmj and sleep specialist

Dr. Manish Shah

  • BDS, MBBS, MMED (Sleep Medicine)
  • Masters in Sleep Medicine
  • General Medical Practitioner
  • General, Implant and Cosmetic Dentist
  • Certified in TMJ & Craniofacial Pain Management
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